Highlights and Lowlights
The best and worst of 1999 -- an undeserving finale to the century, never mind the millennium
By Barry Crimmins
JANUARY 3, 2000: And the story of the year for 1999 was . . . the year 1999! As we await the click that will change the fourth column in the calendrical odometer for the first time in a thousand years, there is no doubt that preparing to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christendom's successful effort to decide when and how we count sunrises was, itself, our biggest news.
Of course, as countless bores have impatiently pointed out, a millennium doesn't really end until the thousandth year expires. We are now just completing the 999th year of the second millennium, and the 99th year of the 20th century. So wait until 2001 to get your real ya-yas out. But this New Year is, and should be, a big deal anyway, because at the stroke of midnight, we'll leave the years that begin with "19" and enter the years that start with "20." Very few human beings other than a couple of yogurt pitchpeople from what was once Soviet Georgia, Bob "The Human Stigmata" Hope, and perhaps a US senator from South Carolina (Strom Thurmond jokes are getting mighty old, aren't they?) have any recollection of anything other than the 19s. So it's boorish to quibble.
That said, I will stick with the nitpickers on the technical point that it is not yet the century's or the millennium's end. As terrible as the past 1000 years have been, I'm not budging from my little turf in time before it's absolutely necessary. So while you all advance boldly into the brave new world, I am going to spend the next 12 months absorbing the old, storing up memories of those long-gone pages on the calendar that were so incompetently peeled away by 20th-century humanity.
Besides, once we make the move into the next 1000 years, we will all start aging faster than dogs. An immutable law of nature is about to be compounded: the older you are, the more quickly your life evaporates.
Part of the reason I don't want to call 1999 the capper of the century is that it really wasn't much to look at or live through. Even we natives of this passing era will be amazed when we look back at the frail superstitions and hearty fears from which we formed our world-view waaaay back in '99.
Nineteen-ninety-nine began while the world watched breathlessly to see whether President Bill Clinton's career would climax prematurely, but he held firm and maintained his grip on the rudder of state while beating off impeachment proceedings (please let us now leave the crotch double-entendre on the ash heap of history). At the darkest moment on the very eve of the trial that would decide his fate, this selfless leader took the time to order the bombing of Iraq, a whim about which he had rattled sabers for several months but indulged only at the exact moment the Iraqis were distracted by the proceedings in Washington. And to think people once questioned his competence to command the military!
And command Clinton did again and again throughout the year, directing US-led NATO forces in strikes that resulted in bombs being dropped everywhere from a New Jersey forest to a Belgrade television station. It appeared the president might have finally found something he likes better than sex. Many secretly hoped that he would relieve his itchy trigger finger once more to punish Indonesia for its decades of murder in East Timor, but, alas, the president restricted his wrath to Southwest Asia and Southern Europe.
Cyber-bucking the systemSpeaking of megalomania, in '99 Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire were put on trial by the US Justice Department and found to be a monopoly (first Reagan's Alzheimer's and now this!).
That the government even remembered that there was such a thing as an anti-trust suit was remarkable, considering how many corporations have been absorbed by other corporations. As '99 ends, and ExxonMobil becomes a reality, we have to wonder how long it will be before we start filling up our Fordrolets at their self-service stations.
In a videotaped deposition for the Microsoft case, Gates provided a stark reminder of why O.J. didn't testify at his criminal trial. Gates's lame attempt to explain away his corporation's sinister efforts to force the entire world to use Microsoft's obscenely non-cooperative operating system and clunky Internet Exploiter Web browser was easily the funniest video on the Net since the original South Park Christmas bootleg. I'd write more about it, but Word keeps crashing.
On the other hand, it was equally humorous to see outfits such as Sun Microsystems and Netscape portrayed as gallant little underdogs. But then, compared to Microsoft, the European Union is a gallant little underdog.
In '99 the Internet loomed large, dominating headlines, inflaming the stock market, and allowing us to make our bad last-minute holiday-gift decisions from the comfort of our homes.
At least we understand how to use the shopping sites. It used to be that once in a while you'd see an ad on TV and think, "Now who the hell is going to buy a mainframe computer because they saw a commercial for it during a football game?" Nowadays we get one commercial after another for Web sites and products that seem to have only one thing in common: it is nearly impossible to tell what the hell they are.
These elaborate and expensive TV commercials usually start with a rainy-night scene or a shot of the desert in the baking sun. Then the voice-over starts lamenting about cutthroat competition and how dizzy you can get trying to figure out the future. Then, with a slamming noise, they plug a Web site: www.slagsource.com! And you think, "What in hell is a slagsource?" When you're next at your computer, you don't remember to check out slagsource.com, and you don't really think about it again until you read in the paper the next week that the 26-year-old multibillionaire who founded slagsource.com has just purchased the Rose Bowl and plans to convert it to one of those places with the ramps for those X-Games weirdoes.
How anyone can make money selling unidentifiable services, much less find enough extra scratch for saturation advertising during the World Series, is baffling. We may figure out what has happened only when this whole thing goes bust and venture capitalists find themselves out on the street selling Apples and dodging people jumping from Windows.
As easily as the 1999 bread rose for dot-commerce entrepreneurs, there was still a group of capitalists who profited more mightily in a few weeks than all of Silicon Valley's 250,000 millionaires have since the dark days of the segregated circuit. Who'd have guessed that the most profitable businesses of the year would be flower stands in the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s SoHo neighborhood?
JFK Jr.'s spectacular crash was not the only mishap off the New England coast this year; an EgyptAir flight also apparently was taken directly into the concrete-hard ocean. The only explanation for the disaster that has been (forgive the term) floated is a somewhat dubious "Allah is my co-pilot" theory that a religious-zealot crewman intentionally crashed the plane.
Rudy loves New YorkIt was a shame that someone didn't think to leave canned food or clothing for New York's homeless population in front of the Kennedy brownstone. The sorely beset could have used a break, considering the hell they were being put through by New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, my choice for 1999 Thug of the Year. Not only did Mussliani take the bold step of making it illegal for the city's disenfranchised to sleep on the streets, but he also did it at a time when homeless people who move into the city's overcrowded and dangerous shelters are subject to indentured city servitude at far from living wages in exchange for subhuman lodging.
The nicest thing you can say about the Dictator of No-Fun City is that he is a close personal friend of George Steinbrenner.
The myth that Republicans are opposed to frivolous lawsuits was exploded when Mussliani attempted to close a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art because a dunged-up rendition of the Virgin Mary offended him. Rudy lost the suit, but it didn't stop him from continuing to splatter the Bill of Rights with his own feces at every opportunity.
Alas, Rudy's NYC is an oversize microcosm of this country in 1999. Almost everywhere, the poor are oppressed and the wealthy are over-represented. The wealthy's paranoid fears are appeased while the poor's basic needs and rights are ignored and trampled. In fact, the mistreatment of the poor in New York is almost at the direct behest of the highfalutin who got tired of having their days impinged upon by glances of impoverished misery from, as well as . . . shudder . . . actual contact with, homeless people. What once was a city full of diverse people and businesses is slowly losing its individuality as it is made over into a mall in which suburban Repubs like NY governor George Pataki feel safe and at home. Where isn't that happening?
Here's some good news. Giuliani is headed out of New York and into the national arena if he can beat Hillary Clinton in a likely match-up for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Washington barstool . . . er, US Senate seat. There should be a huge voter turnout because everyone hates at least one of the candidates, who have more negatives between them than the Kodak archives in Rochester.
Book 'emAll year, from coast to coast, the rich conspicuously consumed to the point of engorgement. If poor people were caught on the streets with just a fraction of the drugs that could be found in an audit of most any penthouse gathering, they would be swooped up by racial-profiling police departments and put away until it was safe to drink tap water. When the Man isn't busy arresting vagrants, he's putting adolescents into a system that spirals them ever downward until they're just more pained faces among the more than two million incarcerated Americans.
Poor kids who avoid the lure of drug-provided artificial distraction still have to negotiate city streets filled with armed thugs who have a state-sanctioned mandate to ignore these children's human rights and shake them down because they make the neighborhood less attractive to the moneyed few.
As we enter the last year of Millennium II, jails have become the waste receptacles of America's campaign of economic cleansing. Penal institutes seem the only hope of economic redemption for burned-out mill towns that have been abandoned by multinational companies in their desire to drive the work force harder and longer for less and less money. So poor boys from the country become prison guards and get paid to ride herd over their impoverished urban brethren. The upside of this is that there is manufacturing happening again in America's mill towns -- in prisons, where workers are knocking back upward of 11 cents an hour and corporations are profiteering from their de facto slave labor. Come to think of it, maybe I should leave this century now.
Even lesser evilsThere is a presidential election headed our way, and it took itself out for a 1999 shakedown cruise that narrowed the field of viable candidates to replace Clinton to four men.
Texas governor George Dubyahoo Bush played rope-a-dope for the first several rounds of the fight for the Republican 2000 presidential nomination. It proved to be a wise strategy because no matter how many blows Bush sustained, it was obvious he's ineligible for brain damage. More important, he held off participating in debates until former family employee Dan Quayle withdrew from the race. After seeing Dubyahoo's performance in his first few clashes with the rest of the Republican field, it was obvious that Quayle had rejoined the Bush team -- as a debate coach.
Perhaps Bush's lackluster identity is an asset in a field of GOP candidates that includes such borderline personalities as the poster child for self-loathing, Alan Keyes; Gary Bauer, who is Pat Buchanan without the social skills; and Steve Forbes, the homophobic heir to a homosexual's fortune. Along with Bush, the only other legitimate threat to win the executive branch is the ill-tempered Senator John McCain of Arizona, who, like Bob Dole, thinks Americans owe people with bad luck in wars and good connections in the corridors of power a home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Governor Bush has been accused repeatedly of having been a major cocaine user in his younger days, but we must remember that when he was allegedly doing a lot of blow, most everyone who lived at the CIA director's home was knee deep in the stuff.
In a recent appearance, Bush cited Jesus Christ as his greatest influence. Apparently the death-penalty-happy Texas governor figured that if execution was good enough for Christ, it's good enough for a measurable portion of the citizenry of the Lone Star State. "The sparks at night are big and bright -- ZAP-ZAP-ZAP -- deep in the bowels of Texas penitentiaries. . . ." Oh, wait, the electric chair is in Florida, and it's Jeb Bush's specialty, isn't it? Apparently the lethal-injection chamber is the one place where Dubyahoo is happy to admit to having a major drug habit.
Current vice-president and noted pro-war environmentalist Al Gore had to reinvent himself in 1999 after he began to lose ground to Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nod. Faster than you could sing a chorus of "Tennessee Jed," Gore relocated his campaign to his euphemistic home state, even though the Washington-raised politician has spent less time there than the average cask of Jack Daniel's.
Former senator Bradley is the Wall Street darling and former Nicaraguan contra supporter who not so long ago wasn't even sure he was a Democrat anymore. He shouldn't have worried. Nobody is. After eight years of Clinton and Gore's welfare baiting, conscience-free trading, military escalating, fat-cat fellating, and administrating, it was hard to find anyone anywhere who could even remember who made up the traditional Democratic voter base. As ever, the problem with the upcoming presidential election is that someone will win the damned thing.
Underdog biteIn 1999, McCarthy-era fink film director Elia Kazan was honored with a lifetime-achievement award at the Academy Awards ceremony. Kazan remained collected, and his tail swished behind him only a few times as he spoke. As he accepted the award, hundreds of people who coulda been contenders in Hollywood but had their careers trashed because of the cowardice and duplicity of quislings like Elia Kazan had to be thinking, "It was you, Elia."
Bullied underdogs make good copy as noble victims, but now that we're in a time of electronic and technological equalizers, it is becoming clear that, given the chance, dorks are just as likely to be bullies as any other clique in school. Several times in '99, the Net was fouled with viruses intended to wreak havoc with millions of unsuspecting people's computers. A life's work gets destroyed, a small business is ruined, art is trashed, just because some seething dink decides to terrorize less expert, unsuspecting computer users. I am pretty soft on crime, but people who maliciously set out to vandalize and destroy other little people's work and property just because they couldn't get a prom date deserve whatever they get.
And 1999 proved to be a dangerous year for people at random in places much less virtual than the online world. High-school students in Colorado, day traders in Atlanta, Baptists in Texas, and children at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles all saw their lives go from mundane to mayhem in just a few insane seconds. Even a Xerox office in Hawaii was shot up by a copycat criminal.
This year, the revenge of the nerds became more and more dangerous. Anyone who feels wronged or slighted can amass enough firepower with his allowance or severance pay or credit card to hold off the Mexican army for a few days. I guess it could have been worse. Had the deadly dorks from Columbine High (I won't gratify their lust for fame by using their names) funneled their dorkiness into capitalist Net venturing, they might have gotten lucky and, after an initial public offering of stock, had billions and billions to put into weapons of mass destruction. Then we'd all be dead. For that matter, I don't know when Bill Gates's next high-school reunion takes place, but I promise I won't be within three time zones of the soirée.
E-hopeOf course, not everything related to computers and the Net is weird and foreboding. As I wrote this, I received an e-mail from a friend telling me about the United Nations online project to battle hunger. All you have to do is go to this site and click a button that leads you to a page with some banners for some corporate sites. Every day that you return to that site and click the button, another hungry person receives a meal from funds collected from the advertisers. It costs you no more than the time it takes to see some banners on your Bill Gates-controlled Web browser. So bookmark http://www.thehungersite.com -- and spread the word.
The electronic revolution that continued unabated this year wasn't just about corporate greed, mysterious Web ads, and Ponzi-scheme stock deals. The corporate behemoths have sold us a lot of stuff that we can now use to supplant the sanitized version of the world we receive from networks and publications that are nothing more than house organs contrived to spin everything with corporate English. Average people can now actively record and comment on history by using the computers, modems, video and digital cameras, and software that we have been told we couldn't live without. For once, the corporate pitchpeople were on to something.
In late 1999, when the World Trade Organization came to Seattle and the police acted like Hessians by attempting to quash free speech, legal assembly, and legitimate dissent, we were able to learn the real story via the Internet. So instead of seeing the Battle in Seattle as just a riot by fringe lunatics, we understood that there was a broad coalition of protesters there to raise awareness about the lowered environmental, worker-safety, and medical standards that come with the WTO's planned wave of unbridled greed without borders. When the mainstream press showed us images of crazed activists, we were able to learn that those who did become crazy did so after the police started the riot, just like in Chicago in 1968. And again, the whole world was watching, but this time it had a whole hell of a lot better footage.
The protests and the electronic grassroots networking from Seattle furnished the most hopeful political news that has shaken this country in years. As much as I will miss this screwed-up century, I know I will enter the next with at least a few people who not only will tell the devil he's a liar, but will be able to prove it.
Happy Old Century! Happy New Year!
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